Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009 My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oddly enough, this is probably the first short story collection I've read cover-to-cover. This is cause for celebration, or at least a new "shelf" on Goodreads. I think I'll call it "short-stories." (oooh!)

If you're going to read your first short story collection why not this one? It is part of an annual series that collects a few stories and non-fiction pieces published that year in some of the better magazines and websites. So it's a smörgåsbord -- or perhaps a "mixed bag" if you are a cynic, or if that little circle above the "a" frightens you.

After the Introduction by Marjane Satrapi -- which explains her early reading tastes and devotes not a single word to the works it is introducing -- there follows 30-50 pages of random facts, of the kind commonly found in the "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader" series. So "out-of-place" and "confused" are words sure to come to mind. In other words, between Satrapi's admission to being humbled while reading giants like Dostoevsky, and a list of the "Best Craigslist ads," I was scratching my head (perhaps only metaphorically), wondering just what I was reading. But it's all good. Satrapi is always fun to read, and who doesn't like reading a few lists of trivia? Especially me, who once-upon-a-time read almanacs avidly.

Then there are the stories. I find there is no need -- nor am I able -- to write about every single story in the collection. Instead, a general word about the stories as a whole: eclectic and varied; decidedly leftward leaning (doesn't the cover speak that clearly enough?); and, as always with these collections, variable in terms of quality. Tastes vary, although I doubt any story in this collection will cause even the most picky reader to throw the book down in disgust. Nor do I doubt that everyone will find at least one worthwhile story.

And now about some of my personal favorites (Note: Some of these works can be read online, in part or in full, so I will be sure to post a link where appropriate):

The Chameleon by David Grann (non-fiction): about a 30-something French man, Frédéric Bourdin, a serial impostor, who often posed as a young boy. He used to wander around Europe, creating new characters and scenarios, sometimes convincing people for many months at a time. He says he only wanted love and attention. The law enforcement were always unsure of how and for what to punish him. His ugliest hour came when he posed as a missing American boy and hoodwinked the lost boy's family for several months, though eventually turned himself in. He is now married and has a young daughter, and claims to have given up his old ways.

Wild Berry Blue by Rivka Galchen: A story of an eight-year-old Jewish girl who "falls in love" with a former heroine addict who works at McDonalds -- I'm not making this up. The story is told from the point of view of the girl, all grown up, and we learn at the end of the story that there have been many similarly odd infatuations since.

Diary of a Fire Lookout by Philip Connors (non-fiction): Even with all the exciting works of the collection within the realm of fiction, somehow this simple diary of a man who sits in a tower in Gila National Forest in New Mexico and looks for forest fires is near the top of my list. There are some touching moments (he finds a solitary, dying fawn), and some interesting encounters (with a pair of "smokejumpers," people trained to jump out of planes to combat fires in rugged, otherwise unreachable areas; and with a pair of hikers, who were planning to hike, if not all, then most of the Rocky Mountains). I am a bit miffed that people with degrees from upper-crust universities seem to gravitate towards that kind of job (*sigh* you are not Thoreau); still, this an interesting piece of work.

Mississippi Drift by Mathew Power(non-fiction): The writer joins a group of "river vagrants" as they attempt to sail down the Mississippi River. The skipper and primary constructor of their makeshift boat is a guy named Matt, "a dumpster-diving, train-hopping, animal-rights-crusading anarchist and tramp," who runs his ship with an oddly totalitarian grip. During the story we also encounter "Poppa Nuetrino," a kind of grandfather of trash-boat builders and the main proponent of a "Whoa, man -- far out!" kind of "philosophy." There is a biography of this man, The Happiest Man in the World, by Alec Wikinson. Regarding Matt and his own trash boat, the other crew members steadily dropped off, until Matt was alone and the boat eventually capsized.

The Temp by Amelia Kahamey: A new woman, a temporary employee, steps into a typical humdrum office and steadily convinces the other employess -- without saying a direct word about it -- to quit their jobs for happier pastures. An uplifter, for sure.

To be frank, this collection is loaded with works taken from magazines that I never read. But it is nice to get an annual look into the world of well-pressed button-down shirts and the soft-spoken voices of NPR personalities. And for the record, there are only two classes of people who use the word "intelligent" when they mean to say "smart": the under-educated and the over-educated.

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